By Sarah Quinton, 2000
Wildlife inhabits our post-natural surroundings, and pays homage to the very creatures that have traditionally given us the materials with which textiles have been created. Lisa Gabrielle Mark's vision builds on the Contemporary Gallery's goal of expanding current notions of contemporary textile applications in an international and interdisciplinary context.
Throughout the years 2000 and 2001, the Contemporary Gallery will present 100% Natural, a series of three exhibitions that introduces new ways of thinking about nature's complicity as our partner in the invention of textiles. This title is a play on the commercial labelling of fibre content in fabrics made for the consumer market. The exhibitions that make up 100% Natural will examine textile art's involvement with high technological production, domestic and hand production, and poetic expressions within various modes of visual art. Traditional crafts have evolved without leaving the past behind; as do the artworks, artifacts and installations in these exhibitions, which retain histories of material lore based on handwork while forging contemporary dimensions.
The three exhibitions that constitute 100% Natural are Wildlife: a field guide to the post-natural, curated by Lisa Gabrielle Mark; On Growth and Form: textiles and the engineering of nature, curated by Philip Beesley, Rachel MacHenry and Evelyn von Michalofski; and Comfort Zones: textiles in the Canadian landscape, curated by Sarah Quinton with the Museum's permanent collection curator, Marijke Kerkhoven.
Wildlife: a field guide to the post-natural
By Lisa Gabrielle Mark, 2000
Ours is a time in which, more than ever, nature is shaped and defined by culture. Few places exist that have not been surveyed, measured and manipulated in some way - from microcosm to macrocosm. Even to observe is to intervene, as 20th-century cultural anthropology tells us.
Of course, there are those essentialists who still regard the natural world as intrinsically pure and seek to return it to that state. However, given the realities of rampant deforestation, genetically engineered produce, DNA-based computer software, cloning, geotextiles and nanotechnology, those essentialists are pursuing a retrograde, romantic ideal. The rest of us “manage” nature, attempting to balance our exploitation of its bounty with many more-or-less pathetic attempts to preserve it. Of course, in reality, what we are managing is our own capacity for destruction.
“Nature” is a word in flux. By definition, it denotes the entire physical universe, including the laws and forces that govern it, but those forces are ever-changing. The split between nature and artifice (two sides of a linguistic dichotomy) is a hangover from the old Cartesian worldview, allowing us to regard nature as “other” and facilitating our use of its resources for our own ends. The natural phenomena (plants, animals, etc.) that we seek to observe, exploit and preserve, actually embody both nature and artifice in a complex and continuous interrelationship.
Our knowledge and experience of the so-called natural world is influenced by dominant political and corporate agendas and mediated by technology, science and mass media. In such a slippery epistemological context, referring to something as natural is really just a judgment on the degree of human intervention or a marketing ploy. Much of what we call nature would perhaps be more accurately described as “post-nature.”
For every civilization, textiles have marked the intersection of nature, culture and technology. Textiles are de facto artificial, even though they are frequently derived from natural sources. Traditionally, textiles are made from elements such as fur, wool, cotton and silk, which have been harvested in some fashion, then dyed and sewn, spun, knitted, felted or woven. If we choose, we can still make textiles the way they were made by our ancestors. However, as new technological developments emerge, form and fibre content change in sync. Now, naturally derived raw materials are just as often extruded and processed (such as wood or rayon) before being woven into fabric.
We know that cultural codes and conventions determine the look and function of all artifice, but I suspect this is especially true of textiles. Because of the intimate contact we have with textiles throughout our day-to-day lives, their appearance may change radically from season to season, and year to year. Clearly, the design of clothing, upholstery, linens and soft toys is influenced as much by fashion as by function, or by the innate physical structure of their raw materials. Human intimacy makes textiles a particularly conducive medium through which to examine the more generalized phenomenon of the post-natural and the impact it has on us.
Recent years have seen an unprecedented number of incidents of wild animals, such as bears, mountain lions and elk, venturing into cities in search of food. This comes as no surprise given the increasing encroachment on their habitats by humans in the form of hunting, tourism and industry. Besides watching TV footage of a starving beast desperately foraging for food in a garbage dump, it is always sad to see a raccoon or skunk be struck by a car on a city street as it tries to make its way to a food source, or to see a bird that has flown into the tempered glass of an office tower.
Sharing territory in an “us-and-them” world has obvious disadvantages for our furred and feathered co-habitants. Many late-20th-century thinkers, Gregory Bateson (Mind and Nature) and Morris Berman (The Reenchantment of the World) among them, have countered the dichotomous relationship of nature to culture with a plea for integration - some going so far as to propose a kind of eco-centric neo-animism. Berman urges us to adopt what he calls participating consciousness, which “involves merger, or identification, with one's surroundings, and bespeaks a psychic wholeness that has long since passed from the scene.”
Since many textiles use elements derived from wildlife (sheeps' wool, rabbits' fur, birds' feathers, worms' silk), it seems appropriate to explore the implications of our present relationship to post-nature through textiles. Both practically and metaphorically, they offer interesting possibilities for the ecstatic merger - or at least the holistic interface - of nature and culture. The intersection of warp and weft is analogous to the scientific axes of x and y, and the linguistic axes of syntax and paradigm - a convergence of two that produces a third - the place of possibility, a big bang.
Early on in the development of this exhibition I had the confirming experience of hearing Korean artist and post-natural poster-child, Choi Jeonghwa state flatly, “Nature for me is a garbage dump.” His assertion, albeit extreme, reflects the reality of a great many city-dwellers (now roughly 50 per cent of the total population of the world and growing). The exquisite pine forests of his native South Korea have been obliterated by industrial development to the point where what were once places of religious reverence and poetic inspiration now function as sites of industry and landfill. However, it is not my intent here to moralize about the current state of environmental affairs (we are evidently an ambitious but decadent civilization); but rather, to present a few of the more potent effects of the nature-culture cocktail as they are manifested in art.
The exhibition Wildlife is a non-comprehensive field guide to denizens of the post-natural landscape. From Lois Andison's bird-like headsets, Nina Katchadourian's mended spider webs and Jake Moore's robotic moths, to Warren Quigley's caged companions and Louise Weaver's crocheted animal coverings, Wildlife features just a few of my curatorial sightings. These works are not nostalgic for another era's conception of nature, but willing to speculate on where the post-natural might take us, for better or worse. Each artist hints at the self-conscious irony of a species torn between its capacity to make reality according to its own designs and the undeniable necessity of finding harmony with those already in existence.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
As the bare-assed products of evolution, we envy the sumptuous coats and gorgeous plumage of animals and birds. We wear fur coats and feather boas. We knit wool into sweaters and adorn hats with feathers. Our envy drives us to hunt, trap and farm well beyond what we need for basic clothing and sustenance; our envy becomes consumptive desire that drives a speculative market, and; in a great many cases, our envy is enough to endanger an entire species - most recently the Tibetan antelope, which is killed for its wool to make trendy shahtoosh shawls. On the positive side, our envy is also the springboard for fantasy; it allows us to imagine, invent and don what nature has otherwise denied us.
Lois Andison's two headgear pieces are covered with brilliantly coloured plumage, the likes of which cannot be found on any parrot or peacock. Set into each helmet is a pair of headphones playing synthesized music featuring bird and nature sounds. From a distance, someone wearing either helmet might look like the guitarist of a heavy-metal band or possibly a Cher impersonator. Only an outrageous few would have attitude enough to strut these feathers for the sake of fashion. But in contrast to the cocky exterior of these pieces is a trance-inducing interior that makes the experience of wearing them far more solitary than social. The dichotomy of subject and object is amplified, so to speak. While you appear to be screaming for the attention of anyone within a five-mile radius, you are actually awash in relaxing New-Agey electronica and oblivious to others' objectifications. (Well maybe not entirely, but you can more easily ignore them when you are enveloped in a padded helmet listening to soothing music.)
Although Andison's headsets are slightly lower tech than a wireless headset, which picks up streaming audio from the Internet, or a memory stick containing downloaded music, the headsets still suggest the impossibly quick pace of technological development and obsolescence. In a world of techno-fever and of-the-moment fashion, Andison does not seek refuge in a Luddite's skepticism or an ascetic's spareness. Instead, her work asks that we admit to our unrequited love affair with beauty - natural and synthetic, visual and auditory - while insisting that we look a bit silly in the process.
New York, U.S.A.
Made during a summer on Porto, a Swedish-speaking island in the Finnish archipelago, Nina Katchadourian's Mended Spiderwebs series photographically documents the artist's efforts at patching broken spider webs using red sewing thread and a pair of tweezers. The patches are made by inserting pieces of thread (some starched for stiffness) directly into the webs. The webs are sticky enough to hold the short threads in place, while longer threads have to be reinforced with glue. Katchadourian ceases her reparations when a web simply can't bear the weight of another thread or if it is completely patched.
The morning after her first web-repair job, Katchadourian noticed a pile of threads lying beneath the web. The spider had rejected her interventions overnight. She proceeded to repair other webs, interspersing longer, reinforced threads with the short ones. She subsequently discovered that the rejected patches could maintain their structural integrity, holding the shapes that had originally been “woven” into the web.
The idea for Katchadourian's video GIFT/GIFT came after reading in a Swedish nature book that spiders will, on occasion, wrap their dead prey in thread and offer it to another spider. In the video, she battles a feisty spider with her tweezers while trying to insert the word “gift,” one letter at a time, into the web. (In Swedish, “gift” means “poison.”) When the artist completes her task, the spider promptly sets about excising the letters, in order, and after making the necessary repairs, returns to the centre of the web to rest.
In a lovely twist on the post-natural, the artist's handiwork is rejected by arachnids, a species named in honour of the mythological Greek weaver Arachne, who was turned into a spider after angering the goddess Athena. For Western civilization, myths such as this one have facilitated the same relentless anthropomorphization that fuels the cable TV programming on programs such as Animal Planet. Katchadourian's interventions, some of which result in more damage than repair, exacerbate the existing ambivalence between humans and nature. Moreover, coexisting with our rapacious capacity for exploitation and destruction is our tendency to project our own psychological motivations onto the natural world. (“Poor spider - her web is broken!”) Hence, the delicious irony of GIFT/GIFT - a gift to one might be poison to another. And even though gift giving is not something we normally associate with spiders (generosity is a human trait, right?), the spider's gift of dead prey given to another spider most likely meets with the favour of its recipient, unlike Katchadourian's scarlet offerings.
It goes without saying: moths are anathema for many textiles. Masticating lepidoptera that settle in and devour their woolly hosts can reduce a sweater to shreds. Jake Moore's robotic moths, collectively titled Parasitic Beauty, may not chew holes in the show's other works, but placing them in the context of textiles amounts to a subversive act.
Moths, like parasitic viruses, depend wholly on the cellular structure of the host while paradoxically destroying it. Their success depends on the ability to reproduce and move to another host. The act of fabricating moths - painstakingly cutting and embroidering feather-light silk organza wings and affixing them to a circuit-board mechanism that enables them to flutter (if not fly) - is therefore akin to deliberate infection. But the host in this instance is not a garment; it is the cultural space of the Museum for Textiles. Ironically, the scope of this exhibition requires that the institution accept these surrogates for what might otherwise consume much of its permanent collection. However, instead of nestling into the nap of a turn-of-the-century carpet, Moore's moths cluster along the museum's (ideologically loaded) white walls.
In his book The Electronic Revolution, William S. Burroughs proposes that “the word” is a form of virus, with the ability to reproduce itself in the form of written language (or pictogram). This ability fundamentally distinguishes human from animal communication. International art collaborators, General Idea, instantiated this idea in the context of visual art by positioning themselves as cultural parasites who propagated by means of an “Imagevirus.” Though Moore's Parasitic Beauty does not attempt to function the same way as General Idea's work - by inhabiting an established cultural form or object and transforming it - the piece nevertheless suggests the subversion of its host's integrity and authority.
If Parasitic Beauty breeds a kind of low-level institutional panic, it is quickly released through a mild paroxysm of laughter. Although their translucent wings and delicate stitching may seduce, the moths are at base just crude machines. The textiles on which they threaten to gorge themselves could easily be the fibres of their own constitution. The virus becomes a beautiful, mechanical, monster of paradox.
Ridgeway, Ontario, Canada
What makes an ideal pet - soft and cuddly, low maintenance with a friendly disposition? Yes. And while I'm at it, why not add well-behaved, quiet and reliable. Oh, and it would be great if it didn't stink, never needed exercise and couldn't claw the furniture. OK, this might be asking too much, but how about a pet I would never have to feed or clean up after that would always be there to greet me when I got home (whenever that might be)?
For centuries, we have been breeding domestic animals to meet our desired specifications. We have played God, as it were, creating purebred pets for aesthetic gratification, recreation and social status. Our genetic tinkering wreaks havoc with nature's adaptive mechanisms (albeit surprisingly less often than one might imagine): a skull bred too small to contain a Labrador puppy's growing brain, a Persian cat's nose so flat it can hardly breathe, not to mention the skittish temperaments of some terriers or the neurotic behaviour of Siamese cats. Where does it end? What are the limits to our desire for custom-made companions?
Warren Quigley puts forth an extreme proposition with his work Companions. Made of real and faux fur that is sewn, stuffed and shaped into a spherical mass and then ensconced in a cage, these pets represent the perversity of the ideal, the breakdown of the dialectic and the nightmare that can result from getting one's own way. The materials and processes used to realize Companions also suggest the privileged place that stuffed-toy animal surrogates have in our lives.
Pets represent the interface of human and animal. Retaining only traces of their species' most basic instincts, they make circles in the grass before lying down to sleep but eat cooked, dehydrated and chemically enhanced food. They are the essence of post-natural. With a measure of black humour, Quigley pitches the ultimate, no-muss, no-fuss, house pet - as art.
Taxidermy is post-naturalism par excellence. The skins of animals are removed, then attached to forms and arranged to simulate living creatures. Whether they appear as someone's private hunting trophies or in a museum diorama, we accept these simulacra as surrogates for the real thing. They are valued for their proximity to the real and their ability to present a seamless surface on which we can project personal and cultural narratives that we control. They are evidence of our sovereignty as a species - as well as our appetite for death.
For two of her works in Wildlife, Louise Weaver has crocheted close-fitting cotton coverings for taxidermists' forms of a raccoon and a rock wallaby. Instead of the fur and skin of a dead animal, what we see is her alluring, hand-wrought replacement. The overall form is still startlingly evocative, but now exists at another level of remove from the real. We can no longer imagine the story of its capture or pretend that the stiff figure in the vitrine is a living creature in its natural habitat, miraculously suspended in time. Its fetish appeal as an object of natural history is entirely dissipated. In fact, stripped of their meta-narrative, Weaver's works now read as sculpture.
If some of her sculptural works rely on the transformation of the form beneath by altering its surface, others simply embellish what nature has already provided. For example, in the photograph Liberty or love we see a taxidermic plover with crocheted pink leg warmers and a ribbon tied around its neck. (Are we to assume the bird needs to keep its legs from cramping during those vigorous wading excursions?) Despite the dead bird's visual proximity to its former (living) incarnation, it cannot be subsumed by the discourse of natural history. Weaver just won't let it. Not only does she interrupt its natural plumage with a decorative flourish and an invitation to anthropomorphize, she abstracts it further by photographing it. For those of us confined to the concrete jungles of post-naturalism, wildlife may be limited to such invested abstractions, experienced only as the hybrid spawn of nature and culture - the real decoy.
© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada